I now have the privilege of providing leadership for a church. I have the precious responsibility of ordering the life of a congregation and helping to guide people towards a fuller relationship with Christ. I have the daunting task of discerning how best individuals can be formed, shaped and transformed and then equipped as saints carrying out the ministry of Christ in the world. There are times when I feel like I have a strong handle on how to do these tasks, fulfilling the responsibilities bestowed upon me at ordination. There are other times when I am absolutely terrified - when it feels like I have made too many mistakes in laying the foundation or when I am overcome with feelings of doubt about how I could possibly get us moving forward again. There are times when I feel like I know exactly what I am doing and there are other times when I wonder how I could possibly be the one God is asking to move a people forward.
When people ask about the transformation that has happened at Mount Vernon Place, how we have gone from a congregation that had been in decline for fifty years to a growing church that is reaching out to its community, I often tell them that the one thing that has made all the difference is a sense of authenticity that pervades all we do.
Five years ago, we had a glorious sanctuary that was engulfing us. We had a hard time finding each other in the sanctuary, let alone in the day to day struggles of life. When we started to redevelop the property, we had to vacate this sanctuary, moving into much smaller and less than glorious space. It was in this more intimate, plain space that we rediscovered the precious gift of community.
The theatre seats on which we sat forced us to come closer together, and we then started to share specific practices that cultivated our sense of togetherness. We started to break bread together at the end of each service, sharing coffee, cookies and other goodies. And, we started to share the joys of life and the burdens of our hearts. We began to make space in each service to share with one another what was making our heart to sing and what was causing our heart to be heavy. It did not take long to begin to see the Spirit at work in these ancient practices.
"What is it that has turned your church around?" people ask. My most common response is, "Seeking to be a place of real authenticity in a city where authenticity can be hard to find." I then go on to explain how the first question we ask at Mount Vernon Place is never, "What do you do?" but rather, "Who are you? What makes your heart sing? What causes your heart to hurt?" This authenticity has made all the difference in the world.
This week, I have been struggling a lot with what I perceive to be hints of brokenness in the body. There are several people who have not been to worship in a while, and it makes me sad while also causing me to wonder what we might have done to disappoint them. There has not been enough communication on some things, and a few folks have felt let down when their desire to do something new has not come to fruition. And it feels at times that we have lost our focus, including sometimes my own focus. It's in times like this when I feel hesitant - uneasy - doubtful - and sometimes even afraid. I wonder what kind of criticism is pointed towards me. I wonder how best to bring individuals back into the fold. I wonder what God is asking me to do now.
This morning during my quiet time, two passages of scripture appeared on the same page of the devotional book I am using. The first passage is 1 Corinthians 12:26-27 which reads, "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it."
This important work of rejoicing and suffering together is central to who we are. We have celebrated the arrival of new jobs and the loss of jobs. We have rejoiced at the birth of new babies and become saddened when another life ended in miscarriage. We have given thanks for new homes and grieved together when homes were hard or impossible to find. We have sought to be the church together - to share the fullness of life with one another - and it has been powerful and life-giving. And I wonder how anyone can get through life without the assurance of having a community of people to journey through life with. I wonder if this message is powerful enough to bring all kinds of people back to the church or into the doors for the first time.
The other passage of scripture I read is Hebrews 10:24-25, "Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another."
The verses appeared as a gift from God. It was almost as if God wrote directly to me in response to what has been on my heart. Our call is to spur one another on toward love and good deeds. We are called to encourage one another. We are called to be together. We are called to do what we can to propel one another to continue being together - when we are getting a lot from the experience and when we are getting little from the experience - when we are seeing God show up often and when God's face is hard to find - in good times and in bad times - in sickness and in health - when the pastor and the lay people are leading in ways we love and when the pastor and the lay people are leading in ways that we would not choose to lead if we were in charge - when the church is singing songs we love and when the church is singing songs that we despise. It is a covenant, after all.
Laurence Hull Stookey adds this prayer to the devotional book, "This Day: A Wesleyan Way of Prayer."
O God of hosts: You are never alone.
Even when you seem to us to be solitary in your splendor,
you yourself live within the community
of your triune being.
As you are never alone,
so you provide that we shall not be alone.
Increase our appreciation for your gift of the church,
imperfect though it is because of our many faults.
By the unifying power of the Holy Spirit,
visit us and bind us together as those
who know themselves to be your people;
through Jesus Christ, whose promises we trust.